Tallinn, Estonia. It’s much further north than you think it’s going to be. Looking out to sea from the port area, you can’t quite see Finland, but it’s very close. Once part of the Soviet Union, it’s now a thriving independent state.
Anyway – that’s the serious stuff done with; you only came for the jokes and tales of adversity. Apparently Estonia is extremely competitive when it comes to wife carrying competitions. Unfortunately for Katie, there would be no piggy backs this weekend. Firstly, because we’re not married (yet), but mainly because Ironman is an individual sport, and she’d been stupid enough to sign up with me this time.
Rewind to July 2016, when she watched me
saunter slog my way around Zurich, nearly managing to individually visit each and every portaloo on the run course. Afterwards, I asked her if she’d ever fancy giving one of these things a go. The answer was a resounding NO. There was absolutely no chance in hell – especially as swimming was involved. She’d stick to a pair of trainers, and listen to me moan 3 times a week when it was time to head to the pool.
Fast forward 5 years and here we were, at Gatwick airport, fancy TT bikes (notice the plural) packed into boxes, weeks and months of painstaking training under our belts, ready to let rip on some Estonian roads. En route, Katie had assured me she booked the option of parking right by the terminal, so you could imagine my delight when we parked up approximately 10 miles away from the actual airport and stood around waiting for a bus to whisk us (and 2 bike boxes, 2 suitcases and 2 rucksacks) on the worlds most convoluted route to the check-in doors.
This wasn’t a problem, as we’d actually arrived 5 hours before our flight. No I’m not joking. Those who know me, know that I love an early arrival, but this was just silly. The issue we were facing, despite booking and paying for a space for our bikes on the plane, was that for some reason the airline couldn’t guarantee there would be enough room. Go figure. So with nothing better to do that day, we decided we’d get there, sit in the queue and hang out.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones. Upon arrival, there were already 8 bikes in the check in queue, which wouldn’t open for another 3 hours. Mental. Before it had opened, Katie did a quick sweep of the queue and counted over 45 bikes. For those of you that haven’t seen them, these bike boxes are proper chunky. There was absolutely no way they were all making it to Tallinn.
What followed was an extremely stressful few hours of travel, wondering if we’d actually have a bike to race with at the weekend. With no Boris bikes in Estonia, we’d be struggling. Miraculously (Mum will say she prayed and that’s why they turned up), both bikes AND bags came floating along the carousel, and we crammed everything into a taxi into town. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for everyone, and many were left without bikes or bags – with good friend and key character in this report, James Ellis, left with a bike but no bag, and therefore no race kit or clothes. To be fair though, that guy could run in a pair of ski boots and probably still beat us all.
We’d arrived on the Tuesday for a Saturday race, wanting to allow for any potential cock ups and faff that comes with triathlon – that decision seemed immediately justified. Chief bike mechanic over here put the bikes together Wednesday morning, meaning that numerous test rides would be required, with absolutely no guarantees that they wouldn’t fall apart within seconds of hitting the road.
James and I headed out to check out a bit of the bike course after I’d lent him some kit, where he specifically requested to wear my Clapham Chasers jersey, which I found slightly odd. The roads were beautifully smooth, but the wind was blowing us all over the place – a sign of things to come. Katie joined us to go and get registered, and pick up the free backpack, which in all honestly is the only reason anyone ever signs up. Why would you do an ironman if no one ever found out about it?
T minus 2 days, and we went for a little run around the town center before hopping in a taxi to go check out the lake where the swim would take place. It was an absolute stunner of a day, the water as flat as a millpond, a bit nippy when you got in, but a pretty perfect temperature. If it was like this on race day we’d be dreaming. Classic.
We’d made it to the day before, with tensions rising in the Spraggins/Lysons camp. My mood wasn’t helped by getting about 2 hours sleep that night, eventually getting up and watching 6 hours of Olympic coverage until it was morning. We rode the 10km or so out of town to the lake where we had to rack our bikes the day before the race ready to go.
Rookie #1 and #2 forgot to bring a change of shoes once we left our bike cleats in transition, and therefore had to wander back through the cobbled city streets in socks that were black by the time we got home. All the admin was finally done, with just enough time to shave a few legs, eat a few pizzas and constantly refresh the weather forecast, which was deteriorating by the second.
Zero sleep for Katie, a couple of hours for me, before the alarm was screaming at us at 3:15AM. Breakfast entertainment was provided in the form of drunk Estonians weaving their way down the road outside our apartment window, clearly slightly worse for wear. The joke was probably on us, as they’d very shortly be in a nice warm bed, with a nice fry up to look forward to upon awakening.
We boarded a bus in the port area (where the finish and T2 were located), which would whisk us out of town and to the swim start, via a stop at the race hotel to try and break the Guinness World Record for number of people packed onto a single decker bus – that probably wouldn’t have got past the COVID police. Katie was quite clearly nervous, as she was being unusually nice to me, as we both contemplated the day ahead.
Giving us 50 minutes between transition opening in the morning and the race start was never going to lead to a stress free build up, especially considering the amount of faffing quite clearly legally required by triathletes before a big event. There was a charge to the bikes from the transition entrance (via a quick stop in one of the highly sought after portaloos), to pump up tyres, sort out food, and spin the wheels a few times to make sure they still turned round.
There was rushed greetings with James (mentioned earlier), Nick Rose (who featured heavily in my Kona run report) and Ben Hall, who didn’t feature in my Challenge Roth report as he was about half an hour up the road. In fact there were tonnes of Brits – it was like a mini invasion, albeit a peaceful one. Katie and I made the 15 minute walk to the start (it’s quite long, don’t let it catch you out), took advantage of one last toilet stop, before being funneled towards the starting area.
The hours before the race had absolutely flown by (as usual), but suddenly we had less than 2 minutes until the start. One of the highlights of the entire race was getting to line up side by side with Katie waiting to swim, wishing each other a slightly emotional good luck before being given the green light to charge towards the water and head first into another long day of racing.
Oh joy, another ironman swim. By now, long time readers are probably screaming at me to take up another sport if it that’s bad. In truth, it’s not – I just find it incredibly frustrating sometimes. Mini-breakthroughs seem to be short lived, and I tend to end up back where I started. Plus 3.8km is a long way, even if you’re a good swimmer.
After a few dolphin dives through the shallower water, the arms started windmilling through the water as I got up to ‘speed’ and started looking ahead to the first of 7 giant buoys placed around the lake. A one lap swim in the sizeable Lake Harku was on the menu, which would see most of us swimming for at least an hour. With the lake being so large, and the field being spread out from the start, there seemed to be limited opportunity to swim in groups, and I ended up solo for the majority.
The first thing to go wrong in an ironman is never far away, and within about 200m, my timing chip had started slipping down my leg, and already felt extremely loose. I was convinced it was about to fall off, and I was weighing up whether to try and remove it and stuff it down the front of my wetsuit. With visions of it slipping out of my hand and sinking to the bottom of the lake, never to be seen again, I opted not to, blindly hoping it wouldn’t fall off in the next hour.
Apart from this, and a couple of mini wrestling matches with other swimmers who tried to mount me, things seemed to be going fairly swimmingly. That was until I turned at buoy 3 – ‘Who’s turned on the washing machine?!’. I assumed a small passenger ferry had just passed close to me, creating a sizable wake which would last a few seconds. Turns out the wind was blowing so hard, it was stirring the lake up into a bit of a frenzy. Breathing to the right was no longer possible, unless you wanted a face full of water every time you tried it.
Nothing for it but to get your head down and swim into the chop. I found it absolutely impossible to get any kind of rhythm, and felt like my form was deteriorating by the second. I hatched a plan in my head (if you look at the swim course map above), to swim underwater from buoy 4 to buoy 7, but didn’t quite back myself to swim underwater for more than 5 minutes, so quickly went back to the drawing board.
The ‘top rectangle’ was a bit of a slog, and I wondered how Katie was getting on and whether in fact she was actually in front of me by this point. Thankfully, my chip was still just about attached to my leg and I was very prepared to fight anyone who tried to knock it off.
Buoy 7 never seemed to get any closer, on what must’ve been the longest finishing straight known to man. That left turn was a sweet one, and I could finally see the inflatable arch, the lights of a very gloomy transition area, and all the bikes ready and waiting. I hauled myself up the sandy bank, tearing off my hat and goggles as I jogged towards my newly favoured discipline.
Swim – 1:10:21 (205/1060 overall, 28/133 AG)
Extremely average swim, but I hadn’t thrown it away completely. As I’ve told people in the past, I never swim with a watch, so have no idea what my swim time is until afterwards. I figure this is a good thing, mentally, as the time you swim really shouldn’t affect the rest of your race, so what’s the point, really? Strava, is the answer.
Apparently it had been raining while we were in the water, as the floor was soaking, but already being wet, this didn’t affect things too much. I had a wee while I was putting my helmet on (TMI?), as it’s much easier than stopping once you’ve got going. I couldn’t see Katie, so assumed that she might not be out yet, but couldn’t be certain. I also couldn’t see James Ellis, but I thought I would be slightly ahead of him (foolish, as he swam a 1:06, a great swim), so assumed I’d see him catch me on the bike at some point.
I ran to the mount line, making an absolute dogs dinner of trying to clip into my pedals once over it – I must’ve looked like an absolute rookie. 38th quickest overall through transition – not too shabby.
T1 – 2:34
The theme of the bike – wet and wild. The forecast had promised high winds and heavy rain, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The roads were already slick, with spray being thrown up all over the place. Given the level of light was pretty low, I’d opted for a clear visor, but this didn’t mean it wouldn’t fog up completely, leaving my temporarily blind for the first 20 minutes.
Just as I was getting ready to lob it away at the first aid station, it finally started to clear, and I was actually able to see again – always useful when riding a bike at 25mph. Once you’re soaked, you’re soaked, and I stopped noticing the rain after a while and concentrated on trying to get some food and drink in.
As usual I was playing my game of catch up after the swim, and I passed a lot of people in the opening stages – you actually have to keep your wits about you to avoid riding into the back of someone. To give an idea of the level of passing, I made up 180 places during the bike, with the majority of those passes taking place in the first 2 hours. No complaints here though – probably better than being passed by 180!
The wind was with us for the first half of the two lap bike course, which was a lot more fun than a headwind. On the first small out and back, I heard someone shout me coming the other way – turns out James had a good swim and was ahead of me! Fair play. He was over a minute ahead at that point, in a nice, socially distanced group, so I wasn’t sure whether I’d see them again or not.
I carried on my merry way, passing fellow Chaser Ben Hall, who joked that it was slightly flatter around here than Dorking. Slightly was a gross understatement, with the course including a grand total of 500m of climbing. One of the more amusing sights whilst on the bike, was the sign ‘It’s just a hill, get over it’, which was positioned at a point on the route which could be roughly compared to a mobility ramp leading up to the front doors of your local village hall.
I actually enjoyed turning into the wind – I felt like I finally had a strong aerodynamic position after all the great help I’d received from my ‘aero guru’ (an absolute legend), and tucked up into a tiny ball I imagined myself cutting through the wind and moving through the field. My mindset was similar to that fateful day at Ironman Wales – the more people that are hating these conditions (Katie), the better it is for me.
My mind often wandered to Katie and how she was getting on, but I found myself more often than not just worrying about her, so tried to push the thoughts away and assure myself she was OK and around lots of other people. Reaching the turnaround point at the end of the first lap, emotions were mixed – elation that one lap was done, followed by the slight downer of having to do it all over again. I had again spotted James going the other way, as well as the worlds fastest old man Nick Rose, and hoped I’d continue to reel them in.
In case you’ve forgotten, it’s still absolutely bucketing down, with the rain drumming onto my helmet and visor and literally creating small rivers running down the road. I was choosing to ignore my hurty hamstring and sore nether regions, instead distracting myself in any way possible, which seemed to include singing ‘It’s raining men’. Interesting.
Just after 100km I finally caught Nick, making some rubbish joke about deploying a sail for the tailwind section. He kept up with me for a bit before dropping back slightly, and then unfortunately falling off his bike. I’m sure I’d be seeing him again later though..
By this point I’d starting lapping the back of the field, so really had to pay attention when the road narrowed or we went round some of the slick bends. I’d put a surge in just to get ahead of a lapped rider just before a turn, just so I wouldn’t be caught up going slowly into and out of the corner. My sole focuses were maintaining speed and staying as aero as possible -so much so that my visor kept banging against my garmin screen.
I finally caught James at 120km, and it was actually lovely to see a friendly face in what was a fairly barren landscape in some pretty horrible conditions. I encouraged him to ride with me if possible – legally of course. In my head, James wasn’t my competition. He was going to get off the bike and run 30 minutes faster than me anyway. As a good mate, I just wanted him to do well and have a great race – if I could help in any way, that’s a bonus.
So onward we went, picking up a Swiss and Czech guy on the way who seemed keen to join our merry band of men (I’m taking the credit though, I was at the front of the line for 100% of the time). I just tried to keep eating and drinking, stay aero and count down the kilometres. Eventually we were heading back into town, and I allowed myself to get excited about finally laying down a bike split I could be really proud of. You muppet.
With just under 10km to go, we turned off the lovely, wide main road at the end of the 2nd lap, onto a narrow, twisty bike path. The surface of this was actually nice and smooth, but the road we merged onto immediately afterwards, was not. Suddenly, I was back in Surrey – potholes.com. With so much standing water on the road, you had no idea where any of these hidden monsters were. I went straight over and into one of the first ones, and my heart seemed to deflate just as quickly as my rear wheel did upon hearing that dreaded hiss of a flat tyre. Bollocks.
8km to go, and James came tearing past. Why I tried to ask him in that 2 second period of time what I should do, I have no idea, because obviously there’s zero chance of him hearing what I say, and even less time to respond. Decision to make – do I try and change it, with freezing cold and wet hands, or do I try and roll it in with a completely flat rear disc wheel.
I quickly opted for the roll it in option, as the kilometres seemed to pass by impossibly slowly. By this point I’d ridden myself up to 21st overall and 3rd in my AG, and hadn’t been passed during the entire ride, so I knew I was having a good day. Clearly, I shipped some time and places as I trundled towards transition though.
It was quite comical really, as I couldn’t turn at all. Any time I tried to go around a corner, my back wheel would try and slide out from under me, and I’d pretty much have to come to a near standstill and tentatively nurse it round. It was like being on a giant ice skate.
After what seemed like a lifetime (but was in reality about 12 minutes), I rolled down the hill into transition, straight over the dismount line and past the lady with the red flag. With the flat, I literally couldn’t stop – it was like a runaway train. I apologised, highlighting my completely useless tyre, and pleaded with her not to give me a penalty. She was very nice, making me walk back to the line with my bike, before turning around and heading into transition.
Bike – 4:38:44 (10/1060 overall, 2/133 AG)
10th best bike split in an ironman event, including a puncture? I’ll take that. It was really nice to see a lot of hard work and effort pay off. I also produced one of my lowest ever power outputs in an ironman race, highlighting that my bike position is definitely improving. Just the small matter of a marathon to run now.
I trotted to my bike slot, racked it, and sat straight down into a puddle about an inch deep. I was already absolutely soaked, so figured this really wouldn’t make much of a difference. While I shoved my shoes and socks on, the announcer said something like ‘he looks glad to be finally off the bike after some ‘testing’ conditions.’ Too bloody right mate.
The first signs of a dodgy stomach were already surfacing – I felt like I’d just left an all-you-can-eat buffet. After a not that short visit to the portaloo, I made my way onto the run course, hoping my hamstring would hold itself together for 26.2 miles.
T2 – 4:33
A classic ironman run course – four loops of around 10km. Run 5km away from the finish, turn around and run back – repeat x 4. I was the 27th person to start the run, with all of those guys fairly spread out, meaning that it felt a bit like I was out for a jog on my own. The first hurdle was to negotiate some uneven railway tracks (something we had to do another 7 times), which wasn’t that much fun, before heading past the finish area and out towards the city.
I knew with the lack of run training, I was unlikely to race to my full potential, hence a complete lack of plan and more of a ‘just see what happens’ mentality. Despite this, I felt pretty good. Nothing new there – the opening stages of the run are always a holding back exercise – one I still haven’t got close to mastering.
So off we went, into the city, running at around 3 hour marathon pace. Surprisingly, the puncture hadn’t knocked me mentally at all; I just tell myself to immediately forget about it. There’s absolutely nothing I can now do to change things – reset, and race your race. Dwelling on it is just going to keep you in a negative and unhelpful mindset.
Lap one is always great, because you’re seeing everything for the first time, and more importantly after hours alone with your thoughts on the bike, suddenly there are people to interact with, even if it’s a smile (grimace) or thumbs up. The route left the coast and wound through some of the city streets, with bemused shoppers wondering what all these choppers in lycra were up to.
Not long after I’d reached the city I saw James Ellis (from this point known as the Ghost of Tallinn on account of the fact that he looked terrible – as white as a sheet) come flying past in the opposite direction, playing a triathlon version of pacman as he picked off runners left, right and center. His partner Sian was out on the route, possibly the loudest person in the city that day, which always provided a big boost when I saw her.
On the way back to transition towards the end of the first lap, my stomach really wasn’t happy and I made my first (of many) visits to the course loos. By the end of the day, I’d nailed the toilet tekkers;
- Unzip trisuit when approaching toilets, and strip it down to my waist
- Open the door and dive through it, all in one motion, trying at the same time to ensure it doesn’t topple over.
- Try and remember to lock the door
- Do what you need to do, as quickly as possible.
- Leave the loo, still stripped to the waist, and start running again.
- Try and pull the suit over your arms whilst running along (this took the longest to master, especially with a torso soaked in rain and sweat)
This regular procedure earned me many weird looks, especially in the time before or after entering the loo, where I was just running along without a top on, for no real clear reason.
Onto lap two, and Grandad Rose was closing in on me at a rate of knots. It was like Kona all over again, but apparently he’s turned into Eluid Kipchoge since then, and unlike that fateful day where I’d catch him after leaving the loo, once he’d gone past me today, he was gone for good, sailing off into the distance.
A key item on my agenda, alongside going to the toilet, was getting eyes on Katie. It was still raining, and I was praying that she was safe and sound. Relief came in the form of Sian telling me she was off the bike whilst I was strolling around the city for the 2nd time.
Sure enough, as I made my way towards the halfway point, there she was, running in the opposite direction. I immediately teared up, babbling away at her instead of saying anything remotely coherent. Love was exchanged and I was just happy she was well on her way. Serious stuff out of the way, I could now busy myself with looking for another toilet.
Through 13.1 miles in 1:35, but I’m very unlikely to run a 3:10 at this stage. My legs are hurting, my stomach was hurting, and I was already dreaming of a cheeky little walk break. I was already at the stage of trying to trick myself into just getting to the next km marker and then you can rest; rinse and repeat.
Luckily, Ben Hall was keeping me honest, as every time we passed in opposite directions, he was getting closer and closer. It really didn’t matter if I beat him or not, but I might as well try. So in between my loo breaks, I was forcing myself to run, despite an extremely strong desire not to.
Reaching the end of the 3rd lap was briefly comforting, until I remembered I still had another 10km to cover. I told myself I could just walk the last lap, but then quickly calculated that it would take about 2 more hours to finish – bugger that.
The Ghost of Tallinn (James) had basically finished by this point, running a 2:49 marathon to finished 3rd overall. Frightening. I was having a right old pity party, until I came out of my 7th (!!!) and final loo stop with around half a lap to go, and realised I could now probably get to the finish without having to go again. The stuff dreams are made of.
I passed the last aid station without walking through it (something I’d been doing since lap 2), and counted down the minutes until I could stop running and collapse on the ground. Finishing an ironman is unlike anything I’ve experienced, and the elation of those final few hundred meters can’t be matched. Suddenly pain and suffering are transformed to euphoria as you realise it’s finally over and you’ve conquered what you set out to achieve.
Showboating down the rep carpet as per, over the line and straight to the metal barriers to try and hold myself up, and stop my legs from collapsing under me. Hugs shared with fellow competitors, along with the obligatory ‘that was hard’. Cracking insight Spraggins. I waited a couple of minutes for Ben to finish and we swapped a few war stories.
Run – 3:28:55 (100/1060 overall, 19/133 AG)
Total time – 9:25:06 (49/1060 overall, 10/133 AG)
As always after an ironman, I was absolutely wrecked, struggling to move and feeling like I could throw up at any point in the recovery area. However, unlike other ironman events I’d done, Katie was taking part in this one, so I had to haul my sorry arse off the floor and try and get back to the course to make sure she was ok.
I just about spotted her heading out onto her final lap, the ‘home’ stretch. Knowing I’d then have some time to wait before she finished, I proceeded to cry quite a lot, for no real apparent reason. I think it was a mixture of pride, anxiety and just being absolutely exhausted. It was mainly pride though – she was going to finish, and I’d seen how much hard work she’d put in to get to this point. I got quite a few people giving me weird looks – why is that guy over there just randomly crying. Blub.
While waiting I stumbled into Nick Rose, already on the beers, obviously. He’d won his age group, running a 3:17 for a 9:14 overall. Absolutely phenomenal and so inspiring. If Gandalf himself can go that fast, there’s hope for us spring chickens yet. What a legend.
Finally the moment arrived, and I was too much of a mess to shout anything coherent. I’d said before, I couldn’t give a stuff if I didn’t finish today; it was all about Katie’s race. She smashed it, running a 3:30 marathon in her first ironman – unbelievable scenes. The smile on her face as she came down the finishing shoot was worth a million dollars.
Pleasingly, she was even more wrecked than I was, unable to physically get off the floor after sitting down, and then requiring a visit to the med tent. Thankfully, superhero Sian was on hand to help me collect Katie’s bike and gear whilst she was being attended to. Post-race celebrations amounted to me going to buy all the food and drink from the supermarket, as she couldn’t muster the strength to leave the apartment. I suppose you know if that’s the case, you probably did it right.
I found out afterwards, that I’d actually done enough to qualify myself for the Ironman World Championships, in Kona, Hawaii. Unfortunately, due to travel restrictions, it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to make it out there, and so therefore I had to decline my slot. Another time, for sure.
So, racing is well and truly back, and I absolutely loved it. I feel like I’ve spent a few months in the wilderness, not being able to run much and just half-arsing training a bit, not knowing when and if events are going to happen. But Estonia has well and truly lit the fire, and made me think about targeting some big goals in 2022. More about that in the future, but before then, focus shifts to the return of the London Marathon in October…